Saxophone playing for non-saxophonists


As in the case of my article on Trombone playing for non-trombonists, the aim of this article is to give guidance to non-saxophone playing band directors and student conductors supervising beginning saxophonists.

Types of saxophone
Holding the saxophone
Sound conception


As in the case of my article on Trombone playing for non-trombonists, the aim of this article is to give guidance to non-saxophone playing band directors and student conductors supervising beginning saxophonists. It does not attempt to teach anyone how to play a saxophone. There are plenty of excellent saxophone teachers and method books on the market that can help you with that. Rather, the idea is to help non-specialists identify several common pitfalls experienced by young saxophone players so that they can be corrected before bad playing habits develop.

Unlike most wind instruments, the saxophone did not evolve over the centuries.
The saxophone ranks among the most unusual musical instruments ever made.  Sporting a clarinet-style mouthpiece and a brass body, it does not fit neatly into either of the traditional brass or the woodwind categories.  It also stands out for yet another reason.  Unlike most other wind instruments, the saxophone did not evolve over the centuries, but was deliberately created. In fact, the saxophones that we use today are little different from those first produced by Adoph Sax in the early 1840s.

The popularity of the saxophone is due in part to its extreme dynamic range, ease of playing and the fact that it produces a tone quality suitable to many types of music.  Apart from its use in wind bands, the instrument is primarily associated with jazz music in America.  In Europe, however, it has been more readily accepted by serious mainstream composers.

Types of Saxophones

There are up to nine different types of saxophone, ranging from the E-flat, C and B flat soprano saxophones to the rarely used B-flat bass and E-flat contrabass versions.  However, only three or four are in common use in school wind bands.  They are the E-flat alto saxophone, the B-flat tenor saxophone and the E-flat baritone saxophone.  Sometimes, the B-flat soprano saxophone is also used.  Like the clarinet family, all saxophone music is written in the treble clef, regardless of its sounding pitch.

There are three sections.
The saxophone consists of three sections: the mouthpiece, the neckpiece and the body. The various parts are fitted together with a slight turning motion.  Before putting the neckpiece in the body of the instrument, however, it is important to loosen the clamp screw.  Students who force the neckpiece in without loosening the screw first risk damaging the airtight fit.  The cork on the neck should also be greased for the mouthpiece to fit.  Since the distance the mouthpiece goes into the neck directly affects intonation, careful listening and tuning are required to determine the most appropriate distance.  Young players using relatively new instruments often fail to push the mouthpiece in far enough, resulting in their instruments playing slightly flat. [the corks on new instruments are generally made a little too large in order to account for shrinkage].


The soprano saxophone is the smallest of the saxophone range to make an appearance in secondary school and college wind bands. The most common soprano saxophone is the straight soprano, a design that sets it apart from other saxophones with curved bells. 

It looks like an oboe.
To the casual observer, it looks and sounds rather like an oboe.  Both instruments have a similar length and share a conical bore. The instrument itself, however, is not particularly popular in schools.  This is probably because it takes an experienced musician to play it well.  In the hands of a relative beginner it can sound out of tune and project a rather raucous tone.


The alto saxophone is arguably the most popular instrument in the saxophone family.  Although it lacks the penetrating quality of the oboe, the alto saxophone is capable of a sort of innocent simplicity of tone that has been much admired, particularly by the so-called “French School”.  When the player is standing, the instrument is normally held slightly to the player’s right.  When seated, players normally hold it in front of them.  There are no strict rules about this, however, and many performers prefer to hold the instrument to the right side when sitting down as well.


The tenor saxophone should not be thought of simply as a larger version of the alto saxophone.  For one thing, the instrument needs considerably more air support to sustain the sound. Most players cope with the upper register reasonably well. It is in the lower register where problems usually develop.

Because of this, some authorities suggest that players begin with a fairly soft reed that will assist in the production of these notes. The downside here is that such an approach can result in a slightly thinner tone and flatter pitch in the upper register. In such cases, the student should be encouraged to compensate for this with greater air support.


The baritone saxophone is often compared to the cello in the symphony orchestra.  Not only do both instruments have the same range, but the cello is also considered a good role model in terms of tone colour and use of vibrato. As in the case of the tenor saxophone, air control is particularly important. 

Beware of the "slap tongue" effect.
Embouchure strength only really becomes an issue at the extreme upper end of the register.  The bigger reed and mouthpiece also carry the risk of producing unintended “slap tongue” effects. These occur when a player places too much tongue on the reed. As a result, a small “thud” accompanies the tonguing action.

Holding the Saxophone

Holding a saxophone properly can sometimes be a problem with beginners, particularly if they are young.  Good posture is nevertheless important in order to obtain a true saxophone sound.  Unlike the clarinet, flute or oboe, the weight of the instrument is carried by the neck strap and not by the fingers.  Attempting to support the instrument’s weight with the hands leads to arm and shoulder tension.  This, in turn, reduces finger flexibility and creates the sort of upper body tension that can close the throat and discourage proper breathing. Because of the greater weight of the baritone saxophone, there is often a tendency for the player to either lean forward or push the head

Ensure that the left hand is slightly cupped.
Most method books give fairly comprehensive instructions about the placement of the hands and fingers. Basically, the fingering system is similar to that of the humble recorder. The left hand should be positioned on the main body in such a way that the index finger covers the B key, the middle finger covers the A key and the ring finger covers the G key.  The left thumb controls the octave key at the back of the instrument.  When not in use it should be placed on the thumb rest provided.  See that the left hand is somewhat cupped.  This will ensure that the palm keys are not inadvertently opened.  On the right hand, the index finger covers the F key, the middle finger the E key and the ring finger on the D key.  It is also important that the fingers of both hands appear relaxed and pointed downwards slightly – never straight across the instrument.

The player should sit forward and upright in the chair.  The shoulders should be relaxed.  Do not let your saxophonists sit in a tense, unbalanced position, with their right shoulders high, right elbows back and the upper bodies showing obvious strain. Some beginners have a tendency to prop the instrument up with a chair or support it with the right knee.  This can usually be corrected with an adjustment of the neck strap. The head should also be held up, not down.  This will help promote better breathing and tone quality.

There are debates about the use of the right thumb.
The instrument is kept stable by the left thumb, which works in tandem with the contact between the upper teeth and the mouthpiece.  Failure to anchor the saxophone with the left thumb can encourage the embouchure to compensate by gripping the mouthpiece too tightly.  This will constrict the tone and cause the instrument to play sharp. There is some dispute about the role of the right thumb.  Some authorities argue that the right thumb takes no active part in playing or supporting the instrument, while others insist that it actively contributes to the embouchure by pushing the saxophone forward as well as up and outward so that the player is blowing through the mouthpiece correctly.

A saxophone may be held either in front of the body or to the side.  The size of the player is the most important determining factor here, although in general it is better to encourage alto saxophone players to hold it in front.  When the saxophone is held at the side, the chair should be rotated about 30 degrees counterclockwise, allowing for the rotation of the player’s trunk to the right.

Sound Conception

There are important differences in sound conception between jazz and orchestral saxophonists.  Make sure your players are aware of these differences when switching from one style of music to another. Jazz players generally work for a big, rich sound, often with edge.  Classical saxophonists, on the other hand, strive for a smaller, darker, and more centered sound, with less edge.

Dynamics are interpreted differently.
Dynamics are also interpreted differently: fortissimo for a classical saxophonist is about mezzo-forte or mezzo-piano for a jazz saxophonist.  Similarly, a pianissimo in classical music is much softer than a pianissimo in jazz. Jazz saxophonists also tune sharper than orchestral players in order to take account of the tendency of the instrument to play flat in forte passages.  They also play pitches (blue notes, etc.) that are simply unacceptable in a classical performance.

The correct use of vibrato for both brass and woodwind instruments is the subject of another article in the focus section. Suffice it to say here that saxophone students should only be permitted to attempt to produce a vibrato after they are able to produce a consistently focussed tone that is clear, warm and steady.